Latest White House Briefing: Simpler Statistics
wo sections added to the White House Web site in late May, the Federal Economic and Social Statistics Briefing Rooms, are making sense of the government's statistical maze.
The federal statistical system is decentralized. The Justice Department compiles statistics on incarceration, the Education Department crunches the numbers for illiteracy rates, and so on. Unfortunately, it is not always clear which statistics are compiled by which agency. For example, if you were looking for the percentage of doctorate degrees in science and engineering awarded to women, you might think the information would be at the Education Department, but it is actually compiled by the National Science Foundation. Even frequent data users such as economic forecasters and social science researchers have complained about not knowing where to locate federal statistical information.
Agencies have long resisted the most obvious solution-creating a single Bureau of Statistics to do all of the government's data collection and analysis in one place-because "we believe there's enormous strength to a diverse system," says Sally Katzen, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget.
The Federal Economic and Social Statistics Briefing Rooms (http://www.whitehouse.gov/fsbr) offer a way out of this impasse. The briefing rooms receive current releases of the most used and sought-after statistics directly from the agencies that produce them. So to find the aforementioned statistics on women with advanced science and engineering degrees, for example, Web surfers would go to the Social Statistics Briefing Room, where they would find four categories of statistics: Crime, Demographic, Education and Health. The information on women with doctorates is right where it ought to be-in the Education section.
Eleven other topics are listed in the Education section, including "Adult Literacy" and "Net Cost of Attending Post-Secondary Education." Each topic displays a title, a thumbnail analysis of the data presented, the source from which the statistics are derived and a tiny chart. Three are hypertext links to more information: Click on the title to get the lowdown on how the statistics were collected and analyzed, as well as links to related information; click on the source to jump to the home page of the agency or division which provided the information; or click on the chart to see a full-sized graphical presentation of the information.
The briefing rooms' biggest drawback might be that information is not presented in alphabetical or any other sort of order, so users have to scroll through the pages to find the specific topic they are seeking. However, this activity can be worthwhile as browsing reveals the hitherto unknown wealth of information the government tracks.
The briefing rooms were developed by the Office of Management and Budget's Interagency Council on Statistical Policy, with technical input from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of Administration.